Location: Coffs Harbour, east coast of Australia.
The alarm goes off at 6.10am. Snooze it for five minutes. It feels like 30 seconds and it’s beeping again. Time to get up and go pick some blueberries.
Fuzzy-headed from lack of sleep, I get up and grab my clothes for the day – none of which are clean. There’s no point; I sit on hundreds of blueberries every day. Change in the toilets since I live in a dorm room with five other people. Quick face-wash, then make my way to the hostel kitchen for breakfast. I force down three weet-bix, which is practically impossible at 6.30am but I know I won’t get lunch until midday. A strong cup of tea is pretty much essential. Say a bleary “morning” to my fellow fruit-pickers and friends, then brush teeth, fill my water bottle and don my blueberry-covered shoes for another day in the fields.
If you are lucky and have good mates, you can hitch a lift with them to and from the farm, a 15 minute drive away. Otherwise, you must wait for the farmers to pick everyone up which is a long-winded process. We get there by 7.15am most days, and discover which of the fields we will be picking that day. Then it’s time to grab your berry bucket, tie it around your waist, and wait for the dreaded pairing up process. The farmer randomly pairs all the workers for the day and each couple picks either side of a row together. If you’re lucky you get a friend or at least someone to chat to that speaks the same language as you. Bad days are when you get a non-talker – someone stuck into their iPod or without good English. I should be getting paid for the amount of English I’ve taught people on the blueberry farm!
Off we go to our rows for the day. Picking isn’t difficult. It’s not particularly hard work or physically tiring, except in the heat. But there are a lot of rules and pressure from the farm-workers to fill your bucket every 20 minutes when they come round to collect them. You must only pick the blue blueberries – the reds are bad. I don’t tell them, but I’m too colour-blind to see the reds so I get told off a lot for having them in my bucket. Don’t ever put a soft berry in your bucket. It will squash and ruin all the good ones. If the skin tears you can eat the berries, but unfortunately for me I don’t even like blueberries. I still eat them though, out of boredom. Some are ok and taste a little like grapes. Other varieties are foul.
We pick for four and a half hours until lunch at 12pm. If it’s been a good morning, I’ve had someone to talk to and haven’t had to use my iPod once yet. Lunch is half an hour which seems to get shorter every day and feels like five minutes sometimes. Time on the blueberry farm is messed up –when you are picking it never seems to pass but during lunchtime it flies by at light speed. After a quick chat with your friends (usual topics: hostel gossip and how your bushes are today) it’s back to picking, for another three and a half hours. If you finish your row you walk to the sorting truck and get given another one. There are a lot of blueberries on this farm! We finish at 4pm and are paid $80 for our troubles, which doesn’t go far in this obscenely expensive country.
It might be a really, really hot day. That is rather tortuous when you have to be outside for eight hours, sometimes with absolutely no shade. The Australian sun is unforgiving, even to my skin which has been prepped by five months of Asian tropical heat. Sun cream is a must, even on a cloudy day, since the UV rating only ranges from ‘very high’ to ‘extreme’. Sometimes it might rain and we get to stop picking and go home early – we long for rain, although as a British person used to awful weather this seems a little like blasphemy.
If you don’t like creepy crawlies, blueberry picking isn’t for you. There are flies and weird bugs everywhere. Ladybirds are prolific and you often find a few mating on your leg or floundering in your bucket. Spider web in the blueberry bush? Just stick your hand right in there to get the berries. Never mind that there is any number of poisonous species in this country. One day a 1m long venomous snake was spotted in the blueberry field – on the very row I was picking that afternoon. There was nothing to do except carry on picking, all the time moving towards the snake and hoping to God it had buggered off somewhere.
All this being said, life on the blueberry farm can be surprisingly fun. I’ve been paired with friends a few times and had some great discussions about travelling, religion, relationships, books and, inevitably, blueberry picking. I spent a couple of days paired with a young Italian boy who now knows a lot more English slang and swearwords than the average European. There is no end to the amount of bush-related jokes you can come up with while stood in a field for eight hours (the most common being how much we like a nicely trimmed bush, the overgrown ones are a nightmare – seriously!).
I worked in the blueberry field for a measly two weeks. This is a pretty accurate description of how it goes. Some travellers are working here for 88 days, completing the required farm work to get a second year Australian visa. Hats off to them – I don’t think I could do it for three months without going mildly insane. It’s the boredom that gets to me. And seeing blueberries in my sleep. Did I mention that I don’t even like blueberries?